The Virtual Community

Wide-area computer-mediated communication networks are a spinoff of American military research. Participants in these early networks soon began using them in ways unintended by the designers, as a communications tool to build social relationships across barriers of space and time. Electronic mail facilitated one-on-one communication, while computer conferencing was created to allow for group conversation. Such adaptation of technology to meet human communication needs is a recurring theme in the history of telecommunications.

Virtual communities are social groups that emerge from networks when enough people carry on public discussions long enough to create webs of personal relationships. Life any other human community, they develop their own norms and customs. Recently, the combination of two previously independent, mature, highly decentralized technologies—the personal computer and the worldwide telecommunication network—has brought networked computerized communication to a broadening circle of ordinary citizens. It is this dramatic growth in the worldwide network that makes the phenomenon of virtual communities so important.

The technology has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost, but only if it is used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population. Rheingold examines several electronic neighborhoods in depth, each with its own social, intellectual, and political character. The WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link) is one of the oldest computer conferencing systems; it is here that Rheingold first personally experienced the feeling of virtual community. He also looks at MUDS (Multi-Use Dungeons) and other role-playing fantasy games, the French Minitel system (the world’s first national network), and Japanese networks.

THE VIRTUAL COMMUNITY is an enthusiastic tour of the network world, in which the author is an experienced participant. He raises many thought-provoking questions about the human elements in electronic communication, as well as the future of the Internet: Will it continue to be largely free and defined by its users, or will government and big business take control? Unfortunately, Rheingold fails to convey the excitement and sense of human contact which can make networking so addictive—too often his treatment is dry and technical.